Wright County Board considers wheelage tax

Nobody likes new taxes, but, at times, they’re the only way to get local projects completed.

At the Aug. 6 meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioner, Highway Engineer Virgil Hawkins came before the board to discuss future county road projects and the potential funding gap.

Hawkins explained that the issue had been discussed at the July 21 transportation committee of the whole meeting and that, over the last 20 years, costs for transportation projects have increased approximately 300 percent while available funding has not kept pace.

The result has been a deterioration of the condition of the county’s highway system. As a result of this funding gap, much needed reconstruction projects have been delayed.

As things currently stand, the funding gap will result in several projects scheduled for 2015 and beyond to be delayed or reduced.

“The projects identified in our five-year plan will have to be delayed due to current funding levels,” Hawkins said. “These are all reconstruction projects, but our current level of funding only allows for pavement preservation projects. One of our new options is a local option sales tax that could be implemented in Wright County so we can do reconstruction projects.”

The commissioners discussed a pair of options. One would be the imposition of a wheelage tax that would generate up to $1.2 million a year.

A local option sales tax would generate $5 million to $6 million annually with approximately 20 percent of those costs coming from Wright County residents.

Currently funding through state aid, federal aid and local levy dollars cover approximately $7.2 million on average, while the needs are close to $12 million or more a year to keep the highway system from further deterioration. All seven of the Twin Cities metro counties have imposed a local option sales tax to cover such projects, as has the City of St. Cloud.

The commissioners weighed the pros and cons of implementing either of the tax options, but Hawkins said that, if the county is to maintain its road system, more funding than is currently available is needed.

“Several other counties have used this option because the costs of road reconstruction has risen so much,” Hawkins said. “At the current level funding, without such a tax we won’t be able to do the projects we have in our five-year plan as reconstruction projects. This is an option we should look into during the budget hearings.”

The board authorized Hawkins to research whether adjacent counties have implemented the local option sales tax and/or wheelage tax and share that information with the commissioners at the upcoming budget meetings for further discussion.

In other items on the Aug. 5 agenda, the board:
• By a 4-1 vote approved sending out requests for proposal to get prices for the design and construction of a new Public Works Building. Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said he couldn’t support the proposal, because the proposed cost of $18.5 million includes $7.5 million for a warm storage facility. Sawatzke said that cost would be much too high if it includes the warm storage building and questioned whether such a building is actually required, since many government units and large businesses don’t have such facilities and that cost of building one for part-time winter use is prohibitive.
• Agreed to take a longer look at replacing the veteran service/nuclear position. It has been years since the job description has been updated and many of the duties are similar to those that are being done by the emergency management department. Former Commissioner Karla Heeter spoke to the board, saying that the board should look creatively at how to deal with the position – potentially eliminating it since many of the duties are being handled by emergency management anyway.
• Approved meeting with the City of Monticello to reach a compromise solution for the configuration of CSAH 75 at the intersection of Hwy. 25 in Monticello that would keep two thru-lanes of traffic on CSAH 75 as well as retaining street parking.
• Appointed Commissioners Sawatzke and Charlie Borrell to serve on the primary canvassing board at 9 a.m. Friday, Aug. 15.
• Referred discussion of the county’s vehicle fleet to the Aug. 13 ways and means committee meeting. The administration department has been working on establishing a motor pool to reduce the amount of mileage reimbursement and potential liability risk assumed by employees when they use their own vehicles. With the annual county auction in September, a handful of vehicles has been identified that the county could use to create a vehicle fleet.
• Authorized steps to be taken during this year to repair damage caused by erosion from water flow in the right of way on CSAH 75 in the Clearwater Watershed District. The county highway department will provide a design plan for making the repairs. As part of the repair project, the Clearwater Watershed District will contribute $10,000 and the City of Clearwater will adopt a resolution of support and provide equipment and manpower to aid in the p
• Approved the June revenue/expenditure guidelines. Through the first half of the budget year, both the revenues and expenditures are on line with initial projections.
• Scheduled a closed session to discuss labor negotiations strategy for 10:30 a.m. following the Sept. 9 board meeting.
• Referred discussion of employee leave policies to the personnel committee.

Freelancer John Holler covers government and the Wright County Board of Commissioners.